Where the Wild Things Are and Aren’t: A Discussion of Both Book and Film

Hear my amazingly intelligent and insightful thoughts on Sendak’s delightful book and the nauseating, self-involved tragedy of a movie that raped the plot of this contemporary children’s classic.

Recently I was required to read Maurice Sendak’s contemporary children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are for a class. I am embarrassed to say that I hadn’t read it as a child, (I can smell your judgement through the ethernet cables). Of course when I finally did read it, I loved it. I won’t bore you with extolling the many wonderful aspects of this book, as I’m sure you already know them. (If you don’t, stop reading here and go quench the desert that is your childhood’s soul by reading this book.)

I will, however, say that it is extremely refreshing to see a book that expresses the joys of destruction. It is a human aspect that I believe most of Western society tries to ignore, or sugar coat. This goes doubly so for children, captained I’m sure by millions of weary mothers who are trying to preserve their newly embroidered couch cushions. Yet destruction is all around you: warfare, plowing over old houses to make room for new ones, your neighbor’s cat under your front driver’s side wheel, (sorry Mittens). You can’t help but acknowledge it in some fashion, and neither can our children. Although, there are many unhealthy and unproductive ways to express destruction, society has kindly developed healthy outlets for these impulses: sports, demolition derbies, fantasy, the news. But where are these outlets for children? They are made to feel naughty or wrong when they express themselves in this manner, but if they are shown healthier ways to manage these impulses, there may be a considerably less torn couch cushions. So, kudos Maurice for filling a very serious dearth in children’s fiction.

Out of curiosity, I also watched the 2009 Spike Jonze movie version. If you’re short on time, I can sum the whole movie up in one phrase: self-involved hipster manifesto. I am still trying to reclaim my soul from American Apparel. I will say that visually it was beautiful, but then we already know hipsters are good at looking artsy. The premise here, (which not a bad idea in and of itself), is that Max is completely incapable of expressing himself. He is lonely, his family has no time for him. A scene at the beginning, shows his mother trying to talk to him while she works from home. He expresses his loneliness, and the way she responds is by asking him to tell her a story, (brilliant parenting). The story he tells is violent and depressive, and if I were his mother, I would drop what I was doing, hug him and take him to get some therapy. Instead, Catherine Keener decides to alternate working, with sidelong teary-eyed sympathetic glances, (thanks Mom, all better). Already we see a storytelling pattern emerge: patches of awkwardly expressed emotional needs and overdramatized conflicts, interspersed with periods of escapist, destruction-oriented fantasies.

Every character in this movie is depicted as childish and self consumed. This is best shown through the scenes with Wild Things themselves, where much, if not all, of the conflict is due to one Thing expecting all of the other Things to act or feel the same way as the initial Thing. When none of the other things agree with Thing A, Thing A will either completely withdraw into itself and storm off somewhere, or they will immediately revert to destructive behavior, which causes everyone present to join in, (aka ‘wild rumpus’ing). At the end of the ‘wild rumpus’ everyone falls on top of each other, giggling, into a cuddle puddle and everything is ok again, or at least until the next scene. Let me make clear, that the ‘rumpus’ is meant to be a resolution to the issue at hand. At no point in the movie is anything ever resolved by talking, compromise or attempting to see any one else’s point of view. Furthermore, each problem is expressed as casting the blame for personal unhappiness onto others. When the next problem erupts, surprise, surprise, it is another iteration of the same problems as last time: each hissy fit neither advancing the plot, nor furthering a resolution. I say replace the wild rumpus-ing with alcohol/drugs and you’ve got the hipster movement pegged. Chronic and self-inflicted misunderstanding.

All of this could have been excusable, nay purposeful, had the ending resolved anything at all. The “resolution” to the plot/character journey is presented as: appreciate that the people who love you, do love you, regardless if they mistreat you, or because of their own self-involvement inadvertently amplify your loneliness. However, the way in which that is expressed is still secretive and non-communicational, both with the Wild Things and with his mother. The way he resolves his argument with Carol, one of the Things, is that he leaves a token for him to find. We know there is no further animosity, because Carol comes to see him off and joins in the “bye, I’ll miss you” roaring. When Max returns home, the resolution, (to the whole reason he even goes into this fantasy world and thus the entire point of the movie, mind you), is that she hugs him, makes him soup and watches him eat it as she slowly falls asleep at the table. The end, don’t we feel all warm and fuzzy inside? Once again, nothing has been said about how Max feels neglected, and thusly nothing is resolved. It implies a lack of willingness to abandon insecurities for the sake of communication or resolution of the problem; furthermore it implies a complete lack of personal responsibility, not only for what the character feels or does, but also for having any influence on the situation. Communication doesn’t just mean that you’ve expressed yourself, it also means that you were  proactive in changing the situation for the better. This movie’s message looks like it says, ‘love conquers all’, but what it really says is: ‘to love someone is to be long-suffering and passive aggressive’. Furthermore, being long-suffering is defeatist. Why should we be telling children to give up trying to be understood, or loved properly, before they’ve even started? Shouldn’t we be teaching children to stand up for themselves in everyday situations? Shouldn’t we be showing them good examples of healthy resolutions to problems? Defeatism=depression=recession, I’m afraid, and nowhere is this better exemplified than in this movie.


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